Published: 14:50, February 24, 2020 | Updated: 07:28, June 6, 2023
Asians battle US xenophobia
By Miao Xiaojuan in New York

Racial prejudice rears its ugly head amid coronavirus outbreak

A group of people wave Chinese flags in front of a big white panel that displays a text in Spanish reading "China can!, Come on!" and Chinese ideograms meaning "We trust in China" during a cultural action to support all the people affected by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in Barcelona on Feb 12, 2020. (LLUIS GENE / AFP)

As China races to contain the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak and minimize its international spread, Chinese people living abroad are battling stigma and discrimination.

In the United States, only 15 cases of infection of the virus have been confirmed, and the immediate risk to the public remains low. But false health information has circulated, including warnings to avoid Asian food and Asian-populated areas. A barrage of vicious comments and derogatory jokes about Chinese or Asians in general has also gathered steam online.

Former US ambassador to China Gary Locke said, “These negative, uninformed comments only stress the need for US public health officials and government leaders to do a better job of educating the public about the virus, how it is spread and how to protect themselves.”

Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in the US, stressed that there is no need for people to fear Asians in their community. “It’s unfortunate. It really saddens me to hear these stories,” she said.

Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said: “All of the infected patients are either isolated at home or hospitalized … there’s no reason to assume that anyone you meet in public, of any ethnic or racial background, poses a risk to you.”

It is critical that the US public guards against any xenophobia surrounding the outbreak and lets common sense prevail, she said.

Observers said the “virus” of misinformation and disinformation, which might be used to spread xenophobia, could pose a greater danger than the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak itself, and concern over public health should not justify any anti-Asian racism.

During a news conference on the outbreak, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “It’s easy to move into ... perspectives in which there tends to be discrimination; there tends to be violation of human rights; there tends to be stigma on innocent people just because of their ethnicity.”

In recent weeks, an 8-year-old boy from Washington State, who was wearing a medical mask, was told by a worker at a sample stand in a Costco outlet to “go away” because he may have come from China, while students at Columbia University in New York were welcomed by a Chinese-language message reading, “Wuhan virus isolation area”.

The health services center at the University of California at Berkeley listed xenophobia toward Asians as a “normal reaction” in an Instagram post on managing fear and anxiety about the outbreak; videos of Asians eating bats accompanied by inaccurate speculation about the cause of the virus and dehumanizing comments went viral; and The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”.

Reports of such racist incidents have sparked public outcry, prompting many to speak out and action to be taken.

Costco has since apologized to the boy and his family; Columbia University has called on students to report any racist incidents; UC-Berkeley has revised its handout, which now reads: “Be mindful of your assumptions about others” and “Self-awareness is important in not stigmatizing others in our community”.

The bat-eating video was shot on the Pacific island nation of Palau, where the dish is a delicacy; and social media users have accused The Wall Street Journal article of resurrecting an archaic stereotype while making light of a serious outbreak. 

Meanwhile, Peter Koo, a New York City Council member for an area that includes Flushing, where more than one-third of the 150,000 residents are Chinese Americans, warned against calling the virus “Wuhan coronavirus” or “China coronavirus”.

“Viruses are colorblind. Naming a virus after a country or a city is an unfair insult that exacerbates discrimination against people from China,” Koo said.

A recent video on Twitter showed a man attacking an Asian woman wearing a mask at a subway station in Manhattan, New York, while cursing her and shouting, “Don’t touch me!” and calling her “diseased”.

Asians often wear face masks for protection from germs, allergies and dust. Since the viral outbreak, many Chinese living abroad have been wearing surgical masks in public areas, but few people expected that this could heighten fear and generate dislike among the US public.

Koo said his office has received complaints from parents whose children are bullied when they wear masks at school, adding that while many people might only wear them when they are sick, they should not stigmatize Asians for doing so.

“I hope Americans will understand that when Asians wear face masks, it does not mean they are sick. But it takes time and education to change cultural perceptions,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and doctors in general believe there is no need to wear masks in the US, but are urging people to wash their hands often and avoid going out in public when they become sick.

But Locke, who used to be governor of Washington state and is a former US secretary of commerce, said the CDC is only making a recommendation, not a requirement or a law.

Charlie Woo, co-founder and CEO of toy manufacturing company Megatoys in Los Angeles, called on Asian Americans to continue explaining that they are not sick just because they are wearing a mask.

“If any Asian feels more comfortable wearing a mask, he or she has every right to do so,” said Woo, who is also vice-chair of the Committee of 100, a group comprising leading Chinese Americans striving to ensure full inclusion in the country and to advance US-China relations.

“The United States has had racial issues since the beginning. Hopefully, we make progress one day at a time,” he said.

Angela Wang, the owner of a decade-old hair salon in Flushing, said one-third of her regular customers used to be non-Chinese, but two days after her employees started wearing masks, these clients all stopped returning. 

“All of us have taken off the masks, but our business has declined by 90 percent in the past week,” said Wang, who arrived in the US 18 years ago from Zhejiang province.

Her salon is just one of many businesses struggling financially in Flushing. A sales manager at a dim sum restaurant believed the outbreak could deal the neighborhood its heaviest blow for many years.

Amid fears of business slowing down in Chinatowns and Asian communities such as Flushing, city officials have told people not to change their day-to-day activities.

Mark Treyger, a New York City Council member, tweeted: “Stick to the facts about coronavirus by getting your info from trained medical professionals and reliable sources. Basic hygiene rules apply. Call out hate when you see it, and continue to shop, dine and go about your normal everyday routine.”

New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot took the initiative to frequent Chinese restaurants, attend celebrations in Chinatown and share all her experiences on Twitter. “I’ve been disheartened by reports of bias and discrimination against the Asian community recently. Let me be clear — our public health response is about a virus, not a group of people,” she tweeted, along with a picture of her and two others dining at a Chinese restaurant.

The CDC and the Chinese government have joined hands for the past 30 years to address public health priorities affecting the two countries and the world, according to Barbara Marston, head of the international coronavirus task force at the CDC’s Center for Global Health. While the epidemic continues to dominate headlines, officials and doctors have reminded the US public that influenza poses a bigger threat.

Koo said that in New York there is a much higher chance of becoming sick from flu.

The CDC estimates that, so far this season, flu has caused at least 22 million cases of illness, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.

In a recent interview with The Boston Globe, Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said, “Anti-Chinese racism centered around the coronavirus outbreak isn’t just ugly, it’s illogical.

“The fact of the matter is we are facing a health crisis right now in the United States. It’s a domestic one and it’s the flu.”